China slowly OK’s foreign TV

State Administration gearing up for '08 Olympics

HONG KONG — It may be the only time in showbiz history that entertainment companies had major victories but did nothing to trumpet them.

Among the few foreign channels that have recently been allowed to begin broadcasting in China are the News Corp.-owned Star, Disney’s ESPN and KBS World, the international-channel offshoot of Korean pubcaster Korean Broadcasting Systems.

The acceptances are significant, but nobody wants to talk about it.

In late 2005, a new regime came in at China’s industry regulator, the State Administration for Radio Film & Television (SARFT). Since then, insiders say, no additional channels have been OK’d — until now.

KBS confirms it began negotiating with SARFT more than three years ago.

The acceptance of foreign channels is a change from the new group’s recent moves, which have been to crack down on TV, tightening restrictions and clamping down on innovations such as phone-in voting for reality TV and gameshows.

The group seems determined to make TV more acceptable and to show off China in the best possible light. The influx of visitors for the 2008 Olympics may be a factor in this, but the event is far from the only one.

There are now about 34 approved channels, including foreign services from Cuba, and China’s own Special Administrative Regions Hong Kong and Macau (see chart).

None of the foreign congloms want to discuss their Sino services. The issues are simply too sensitive and studios have learned the hard way that attracting attention to themselves is the best way of drawing the ire of SARFT.

KBS was allowed to hold a press conference in Beijing to announce its status, but statements were carefully couched. “KBS expects the launch will serve as an opportunity to step up the bilateral relations marking the 15th year of establishing ties” between South Korea and China, the company said in a release.

Admittedly, the foreign channels’ rights are not exactly huge. Officially, the channels are only available in hotels of three-star class or higher, as well as residential compounds reserved for non-Chinese nationals.

KBS says its channel, beamed from the Sinosat satellite platform, will be available to the 4.5 million Koreans who travel to China every year and to the 700,000 Korean residents in the country. The channels are widely, but illegally, picked up by many other Chinese households too — but no one wants to talk about that.

ESPN and Star Sports, run by a Singapore-based joint venture between Disney and News Corp., disappeared from the SARFT list in January and stayed off until August.

At the time, the industry was quick to speculate that operators had done something to anger SARFT or that it was further punishment of News Corp., which in 2005 was deemed to have exceeded its mandate with Qinghai satellite TV. But other Star and Phoenix channels, in which News Corp. has a stake, remained on the approved list.

The inhouse spinmeisters suggested that the cause was simply an administrative glitch, with someone in management having forgotten to file the renewal paperwork in time.

It is also unclear whether dropping the twin channels off the list had any real impact. While Variety knows of homes where signals stopped in January (mostly those in compounds), others continued to get reception (mostly places with their own satellite dishes). “We never actually went off,” says a Singapore source, “but we joined the list again only very recently.”

While the return to the official list is a rare piece of positive news from China for Disney and News Corp., which find the country a frustrating place to do business, rival studios point out that the ESPN-Star Sport duo have lost Chinese rights to English Premier League soccer. These were picked up by Guangdong TV, which is believed to have paid more than $50 million for a three-year contract. Still, the ESPN and Star Sports lineup includes Cup soccer from England and Europe, Major League Baseball and golf from the U.S. Open and the Asian Tour.

As yet there is no sign that other nets such as the Disney Channel, which have been on an unofficial waiting list for years, are going to be granted landing rights any time soon.

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